Evolve or revolve

Behavior change can come about from many motivators, including negative ones. However, as motivation wanes, the behavior change will go with it. If you’re interested in true, long-lasting behavior change, the key is in identity.

I’m not totally a fan of Alcoholics Anonymous.  

But I am totally a fan of its goals. Also, the support, the forgiveness and the fact that they don’t promise success to come about overnight, but instead day by day, are all extremely important elements of a wellness journey.

The problem I have is with the personal identity aspect of it.

That at every meeting or conversation a person has to self-identify as an alcoholic. There is no journey to becoming someone else, just a certain level of white-knuckle struggle not to be who you are… every day.

As I have discussed in essays previously, behavior change can come about as easily as by having a large enough threat pointed in one’s direction. But bribes and guilt can also do the job. (And let’s not forget LOVE!) However, when the threat dissipates, your behavior will begin to re-center itself to your identity – whatever your dominant identity is.

If you identify as an alcoholic, then your behavior, absent incentive or threat, is going to recenter toward alcohol.  

The end goal in a prevention setting should be to move someone to a new identity, where a desired behavior is the norm. Then the new behavior becomes part of that new identity, the person is then just conforming to the behavior of who they now are. (To be clear, I am addressing here the psychological side of addiction and behaviour. The physical side, where it exists, needs additional attention, not for this essay.)

When people joke about the “cult of Apple,” such identities are exactly what they are talking about. Apple’s marketing is and always has been relentlessly encouraging people to take on an “Apple User” identity and thus to think about themselves in distinct ways, from which distinct behaviors follow. It then makes the idea of using similar products from another brand close to unthinkable. “That’s just not who I am!” Numerous products from universities to football teams from Coke/Pepsi to Tesla instill and encourage similar identities.

When people have to identify as an alcoholic every day, that then is who they are, and their identity calls for one behavior while their willpower calls for another. As we all know, willpower does not win the battle every day…

For many years, I have purposefully teased apart the saying, “forgive and forget.” Most often, my goal is definitely to forgive, but to be very wary of forgetting. This both with myself and others. As a shy introvert who nonetheless loves people and being around them, it’s not uncommon for me to have socially awkward moments. That occasionally has me feeling the need to seek forgiveness from someone and then to forgive myself (to stem the relentless embarrassment as I meticulously assess various interactions) but also trying not to forget the ingredients ever at play for another similar interaction in the future.

The same applies outwardly. At a recent book club meeting discussing Reaganland, a tremendous Rick Perlstein book about the ascendance of Ronald Reagan to President, we drew lines to a more current politician. In that discussion, I was told that I was too forgiving. I think that there is a real question as to whether one can be too forgiving, the danger is in being too forgetting.

If you forget and you remain in the same identity, then behavior goes unchecked, and is doomed to keep repeating itself. However, if you work to transform to a new identity, then old behavior may not be forgotten, but it belongs to the old you.

Bars and bars

U.S. prisons are places where there is neither forgiving nor forgetting. And certainly, prisons have no plan for people to journey from one identity to another. The recent case of a young mother kidnapped and killed while out jogging, by a man who had recently been released from 20 years of incarceration for a similar crime shocked the nation, but should we be surprised? If all we have is a system based on punishment and we lock someone up for 2 decades with nothing to do but stew and likely live in an existence of fear and retrogressive social interactions, and then is released with a few dollars and few options for employment, what outcomes should we expect? It’s actually a testament to personal evolution (or, worryingly, the jailing of innocents) that some people who go through our system do manage to stay out of trouble upon release. If one were to design a prison system with the primary goal of recidivism, I’d like to know how markedly different it would look from the system the US currently has.

In a comparison, AA comes out with great intent and a lot of good results. It is, of course, strongly based on the Christian journey of its founders. And in the Christian journey, one asks for forgiveness, wipes the slate clean and starts each day afresh, with the goal of a sin-free existence – and the knowledge that, in some way or another, small or large, one will fail, every day.  

However, to think of oneself as Christian is to label oneself with a positive. (I will recognize, but skip the conversation here, for now, that many people do not consider that label a positive, – however, many people who carry the label do). Someone following a similar program but with the label of alcoholic are giving themselves a negative label. This is a HUGELY critical difference, because one journey is aspiring to live up to a positive label and one is trying to avoid living “down” to a negative one. One journey is like running in slow motion along a beach toward the arms of someone you love; the other is like walking across a plank between two skyscrapers. Every day.

One journey is uplifting and exhilarating. The other, even in success, is stressful and angst-inducing.

If we want people to have habits and behavior different from the ones they currently have and if we want those habits to stick, we need to allow them to see themselves as a new person and WE in society need to allow and accept that new person also. Which is not to say that we or they should absolutely forget what may have transpired in the past, but that we allow, encourage and assist people to evolve to a new identity with new habits and attach the old habits or transgressions to the old identity and work to leave it behind.

Saying we want lasting behavior change is wasted words unless we encourage and allow the identity evolution that is necessary for such behavior to thrive.

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